Whale Sharks

A circular fisheye photo of a whale shark (Rhincodon typus) gapes open its mouth while feeding at the surface, in a behaviour known as botella feeding. Photo taken by Dr. Alex Mustard, you can find more amazing photos at www.amustard.com

Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Chrondrichthyes
Order: Orectolobiformes
Family: Rhincodontidae
Genius: Rhincodon
Species: Typus

A good friend of mine from college is a huge shark enthusiast. She could tell you all sorts of facts about sharks and I’d always go to her if I was having a hard time learning various tidbits about them for class. So I hope I do the whale shark justice today, or else I’m sure I’ll get a playful smack for it later!

Whale sharks (Rhinocodon typus) are pretty cool because they’re the largest shark that lives today, which makes them the largest fish too. Sharks belong to the class of cartilaginous fish with skates and rays—yes, skates and rays are considered fish too. Whale sharks grow up to 65 ft long and are typically the size of a school bus. Their mouths are large enough to fit a person inside comfortably, but don’t worry. We’re safe from these gentle giants because they’re filter feeders! That’s right, these behemoths feed on some of the smallest organisms on the food web—plankton and small fish. But how do they get enough food to support their size?

While they cruise around the tropical waters of the oceans they open their large mouths, suck in a lot of water, and push it out over their gills where the food gets stuck on gill rakers. The food sits on the bony projections until it’s later swallowed. Other than their size, you can also identify these guys by the long ridges that run down their bodies and their spot covered skin. In fact, each Rhincodon typus has a unique pattern of white spots that allows scientists to identify different individuals.

Here’s another neat fact about whale sharks. Whale shark mothers carry their fertilized eggs inside themselves and those eggs will hatch inside her, allowing her to give birth to live young. Cool, right? Sharks have a lot of weird birthing processes that I’ll eventually cover, but this process is called ovoviviparous—that’s a mouthful!

I hope I’ve gotten you interested in whale sharks with this piece. I saw my first one a few years ago at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia. I didn’t know what to expect but it was like love at first sight. They were these big goofy sharks gliding around the large tank, occasionally opening their mouths as they went. They were really peaceful to watch and that’s what I did for hours, letting the people around me melt away as I watched the whale sharks move about and the manta rays danced around them.

It’s sad to know that whale shark populations are declining, even though they’re protected in some countries. Their meat and fins are highly sought after for shark fin soup, and they are hunted in unsustainable numbers. Don’t get me started on the dish, not yet. When you get the chance, take the time to watch these gentle giants and get lost in their goofy majesty.

Sources and cool links:
Ocean: The Definitive Visual Guide made by the American Museum of Natural History


World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky

Cover of the book: World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky and illustrated by Frank Stockton

For Earth Day 2020 I decided to go for most of the day without electronics. For a whole day I went without my tablet, my laptop, and a TV. For half of the day, from 5pm-midnight, I kept my phone off.

What did I do with all of this sudden free time? I spent my morning outside cleaning up the yard, the weather was quite nice after a few days of rain. Then I spent the rest of the day reading.

One of the books I read was World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky with illustrations by Frank Stockton. It’s an interesting book about the history of fishing, focusing on commercial fishing in the ocean, how overfishing became a problem, and the dangers of overfishing.

The language is easy enough to understand for anyone in middle grade school and above, and the author does a wonderful job explaining more complex issues in a way that others would be able to understand. The illustrations help to break up long sections of information, and they’re rather nice to look at.

Inside the book, there is also a several part comic that follows the story of a dad and daughter, eventually showing the future of a fishless sea. Not gonna lie, the comic is depressing and it didn’t really hit me until the end. Still, it’s a creative way to show a possible future if we don’t do something about unsustainable fishing now.

Overall, I would recommend this book to everyone I can. Not only is it a good history o commercial fishing, but it provides insights as to how fishing became a problem and that fishermen are not at the root of it all. In fact, it shows that both sides made mistakes and that both sides want to fix the problem. It also looks at all the viable options for sustainable fishing practices and the science behind each. And finally, it gives information on how we the consumers can help promote sustainable fishing by shopping for the right products.

Mark Kurlansky gives the readers all sorts of information on how to learn more about supporting sustainable fishing, including what labels to look out for, websites for more information, and even a pamphlet that you can cut out and carry with you.

For those who want to take it a step beyond the grocery store, especially grade schoolers who want to do more, he provides steps you can take to promote sustainable fish. Including, how to protest and bring up the issue in your local stores and restaurants while still being civil, making proactive groups at school, and how to bring it to the attention of the government.

Again, World Without Fish is an insightful read that brings to light a possible future that we can see in our lifetime. It’s a call for change, and it provides resources on how to act now in peaceful ways. I recommend it to everyone. I also recommend that parents and children read it together. There’s always hope, and it starts with us.

“All life on earth is interconnected, and altered circumstances will change the order of life at sea, which will also change life on land. And all of this can and will have an enormous impact on our lives” ~Mark Kurlansky, pg. xvii